The Desi Equivalent of Baby Einstein …

My two-year old nephew can’t get enough of Lingo the Lion and ever since I watched the DVD “Animals”, I can see why.

One of the offerings from the bilingual publisher Little GuruSkool, “Animals” is what I’d call a Desi equivalent of the immensely popular Baby Einstein series. Combining video footage of the natural world with animated characters, adorable little puppets and Desi babies, and catchy music, it promises to help the diasporic subcontinental parent “introduce their children to the Indian culture in a fun and interactive way.”

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Little GuruSkool is a relatively new company, based in Chicago and founded by Pooja Pittie Goel, the mother of a preschooler who “wanted to expose her son to Indian languages, music, art and nature at an early age, but could not find any books or DVDs in the market (either in the US or in India) that were appropriate for pre-schoolers – educational and entertaining at the same time.” When she couldn’t find what she needed in the market place, she decided to create the products (DVDs, audio CDs, and illustrated, high quality board books) herself. The production quality is impressive, and after I finished watching the “Animals” DVD, I couldn’t get the song about “choti choti machliya” (little, tiny fish) out of my head.

If you’re in the market for a gift for that little desi toddler in your life, Little GuruSkool’s line is sure to be a happy discovery for you. It’s a welcome addition to the current offerings of bilingual, multimedia educational lines such as Sonali Herrera’s Meera Masi, Monika Jain’s Kahani, Rashmi Turner’s Global Wonders, and Kavita (Shah) Bafana’s Little Ustaads (Indian classical music classes), all created by moms to fill existing gaps in the Desi educational marketplace. (I certainly did not have any of these options when I was a toddler, and am glad to know my little one will!)

Below the fold: a brief interview with Pooja Pittie Goel for those interested in her story and process. Q. You started a media company without any prior media experience, or at least, so it seems. What was the most challenging part about this and what was the best part (about being new to the industry)?

A. It’s true that I do not have any prior experience in the media industry. But as an Indian mother living abroad, I had a clear vision of what I wanted my son to know about India and its culture. Because I was new to the industry, there was a definite learning Pooja Pittie Goel.jpg curve while producing the videos and books. It was challenging to direct the film production team without the credibility of experience, but the clear vision of what the end result should look like, guided me. I was involved in every aspect of production of the videos and I enjoyed learning hands-on about the production process.

I have created the illustrations for the books myself – I am an amateur painter and this is a great creative outlet for me! Being new to the industry helped me approach production in a fresh way. Since Little GuruSkool videos and books are unique in their category, I think my inexperience worked in my favor!

Q. What products (books, TV shows, DVDs, music) both here and in India shaped your vision of the products that Little GuruSkool would develop?

A. I think we have many products in the US for preschool children that are interactive & fun while being educational. I admire Disney’s Baby Einstein range of products – they are brilliant! Since similar products don’t really exist for this age group in India, I drew inspiration from my childhood memories in India while developing Little GuruSkool. Everyday objects, colors, music and nature that represent India to me – things that I want my son to be aware of and relate to – they inspire me.

I like to think that Little GuruSkool books and DVDs provide a good balance of Indian and American culture – the same balance that I would like my son to have. The material isn’t too “ethnic” – the color sensibility & illustration is quite modern.

Q. The name Little GuruSkool gives the impression that these are books and DVDs about culture and religion, but my impression was that it’s quite different. Do you agree?

A. I do not wish to promote any particular religion through my products. The word “GuruSkool” is a play on “Gurukul” which, as you know, was the ancient center of learning for young Indian children. My vision is to create a cultural gurukul for parents around the world where their children can learn about all the aspects of Indian culture that make it so interesting and unique.

The products cover educational topics like colors, numbers, animals etc mixed with cultural topics like festivals and musical instruments.

Q. How would you compare your products to those created by companies such as Meera Masi and the India-based Tullika which publishes bilingual books?

A. Little GuruSkool is focused on the preschool age group and provides a more balanced view of Indian culture so that children living abroad can find it easier to relate to – the colors, content and music are not very “ethnic”. The board books contain the same characters, words and objects that are used in the DVDs but they can also be used as stand-alone interactive tools by parents. The DVDs feature playful Indian children, live footage of Indian scenes, everyday Indian objects – they are educational and designed to hold the attention of 1-5 year olds! My products are bilingual (English and Hindi) and I plan to introduce other Indian languages as well. The music CD contains originally composed songs with Hindi lyrics for young children.

Q. What’s next on Little GuruSkool’s plate and your agenda? Are you looking to expand the line by bringing in new writers and illustrators or animators, including those based in the US?

A. Little GuruSkool has a full plate with two new releases planned soon (Numbers 1 to 10 and Festivals of India). I plan to add more languages, more titles and more products like flashcards, toys etc. I am looking at parents out there to give me ideas and suggestions – so they can contact me directly at pooja.goel@littleguruskool.com with any feedback that they might have.

While I already have a production team based in India, I am open to ideas from writers and illustrators based in the US as well.

Q. What surprised you about the response to Little GuruSkool here and in India? Have you discovered a market that you didn’t realize existed?

A. Since Little GuruSkool was born out of a strong personal need, I am glad to find validation of my belief that there is a market for products like this. The response to my products has been thrilling. Parent are often surprised to find that there is something that can make it a little easier for them to raise their children so far away from India while maintaining some basic cultural values!

Q. Much of your production is done in India. How often do you find yourself going back there? And, how do you navigate the demands of both worlds?

A. Before I launched Little GuruSkool in November last year, I traveled to India about 7 times in 14 months to produce the videos and books. Now the travel is less frequent but I expect to go back about 3-4 times a year to continue expanding the product line and introducing fresh content. I enjoy traveling and although it can be demanding, I am lucky to work in a business that takes me back to India and to my family often!

13 thoughts on “The Desi Equivalent of Baby Einstein …

  1. Thanks for this writeup and interview. I have been relying on some youtube videos to introduce my toddler to desi rhymes. These DVDs will be an excellent source. And BTW, thanks for not naming them “Baby Ramanujan” :)

  2. I’m definitely going to look these up – thanks! (Although my South Indian parents will surely wonder why our child knows Hindi rhymes… looking forward to that Kannada version!)

  3. I find it both strange and sad how children are expected to ‘learn’ and ‘understand’ a culture which they have never experienced or been a part of. If parents made the decision to move out of India (for whatever reasons) their children shouldn’t be forced to learn about something so distant. NRIs don’t often realise that while they are abroad, the country they’ve left behind is constantly changing. In fact, diaspora communities are far more conservative and culturally backward and religioously intolerant than the billions of urban Indians living within the country. Teaching children the names of colours in Hindi isn’t going to help them relate to their culture. It seems like just another way for confused and alienated parents to hold on to whatever scraps of their ‘culture’ they can salvage. There are more than enough children’s books of hih quality language and more relevant cultural content being published IN India by Indian publishers – in English with Indian themes or in regional languages. If you want a bilingual child, get him/her to really LEARN the Indian language. (Or would that be too much trouble for the parents?)

    Here’s a great initiative by a non-profit- http://www.prathambooks.org/

    And just to share the calibre of Indian standards for books for older young readers - http://bonifisheii.blogspot.com/2009/02/one-of-spreads-from-childrens-book-im.html

  4. If you want a bilingual child, get him/her to really LEARN the Indian language. (Or would that be too much trouble for the parents?)

    Dude/dudette, preach after you have had a couple of squids of your own. It is not that easy not to want to hold on to ‘scraps’ of one’s culture.

    Anyhoo, thanks for the tips on indian published kid books.

  5. Thanks for this!

    @ABCD: You bring up a decent point, except that 1)The first company doesn’t ship to the US (not very helpful for those of us living overseas, is it?) 2)All of the books are for slightly older readers, as opposed to picture books. 3) I grew up in the US speaking English and practicing US customs, and frankly, it didn’t help me relate to ‘urban indians’ either. 4) These books teach LANGUAGE, not culture.

    A wise man once said: “read a book and up your vocab”

  6. Thanks for this post! I wish there were equivalents in other Indian languages, too. Does anyone know of similar products in Tamil, for instance?

  7. Tulika Books is based in Chennai and publishes bilingual picture books and up in several languages, including Tamil. They’re wonderful. And, I believe they do ship to the US.

    abcd – confused desi – while i agree with you that there are many worthy children’s publishers in india (and more and more each day) worth supporting, there is something to be said for publications particularly aimed at a US-based audience as they take into account their particular experiences. that said, little guruskool is marketing to indian audiences as well from what i understand.